When: Saturday, Jan. 7 — 12 p.m.
Where: Gampel Pavilion — Storrs, Connecticut
Radio: UConn Sports Network
Odds: UConn -6.5, over/under 141.5 (odds via Borgata)
KenPom Predicted Score: UConn 75, Creighton 66
It’s been a season of streaks so far for UConn men’s basketball. After a stellar 14-0 start to the season where the Huskies established themselves as one of the nation’s top teams, they’ve stumbled in conference play. After taking care of Butler, Georgetown and Villanova with relative ease, UConn dropped road contests to Xavier and Providence to head back to Gampel on a two-game losing streak.
Unfortunately for the Huskies, the losing streak couldn’t come a worse time. In comes Doug McDermott’s Creighton squad to Gampel Pavilion, and while the Bluejays have struggled at times this season, the preseason Big East favorites are far from an easy matchup. As a streaky team of their own, Creighton (9-6, 3-1 Big East) started out 6-0 before dropping six straight, all to teams inside the KenPom top 100. They’ve rebounded since with three straight conference wins and are fresh off a 22-point thrashing of Seton Hall. McDermott has also never lost to Dan Hurley in the Huskies, winning five games in five chances, and the Bluejays have the size and strength to pose a problem for UConn once again.
Even though it’s early in conference play, the Huskies’ tilt with Creighton veers dangerously close into “must-win” territory for UConn. With a win, the Huskies stop the losing streak on the season and against the Bluejays, reestablishing themselves as one of the country’s top teams in the process. If they lose, the Huskies head to Milwaukee next week to take on a plucky Marquette squad that is exceeding expectations and could easily hand UConn a fourth-straight loss. Four conference losses won’t make or break a season, but with tough matchups still looming on the schedule, including a road date in Omaha with the Bluejays in February, a win against the preseason conference favorites would go a long way.
What to watch for
When UConn has the ball: UConn’s guards — outside of Jordan Hawkins and Andre Jackson — have been abysmal in both of the Huskies’ losses. The likes of Nahiem Alleyne, Hassan Diarra, Joey Calcaterra and Tristen Newton combined for nine points against PC and 20 against Xavier. While Hawkins and Adama Sanogo are good enough to carry the offense for stretches, this offense is at the best when they get a spark off the bench. Earlier this season, Calcaterra was that guy, but he’s shooting just 2-14 from deep in conference play and not playing good enough defense to warrant more burn. Newton and Diarra have had moments this season, but both have struggled mightily on offense lately, with Newton in particular failing to get to the free throw consistently. One of those four guards will need to step up as a viable third offensive option to help alleviate teams sagging off Jackson on the perimeter and doubling Sanogo in the paint.
Donovan Clingan played sparingly in the loss to Xavier, but was once again a force against Providence, scoring 12 points in a season-high 21 minutes. It was the first time all season Hurley used Clingan and Sanogo together for extended minutes, and while results were mixed, it gave the Huskies another unique offensive look. That “jumbo package” could come into play again Saturday, as Clingan’s physicality and size serves as a way to give Creighton big man Ryan Kalkbrenner fits on both ends.
While the Clingan/Sanogo lineup was partially caused due to foul trouble from Alex Karaban, it also opened up the offense a bit by taking one of the struggling guards off the floor. If the backcourt can’t get it going again, Hurley may rely even more on Clingan and Sanogo in the post to try and get the job done.
UConn likely won’t shoot just 22.7 percent from three again like they did against the Friars, but if they do, the Huskies are in trouble. UConn is still relying on the long ball for a lot of their offense, and while the Huskies remain an excellent offensive rebounding team, Creighton is one of the nation’s best in limiting offensive boards. If shots aren’t falling early, the UConn frontcourt will have their work cut out for them to try and give the offense second chances.
When Creighton has the ball: The Bluejays struggled shooting the ball as a team to start this season, but have picked it up as of late to help fuel their three game conference win streak. Creighton is shooting 48.6 percent from deep over their last three games, and come into this matchup with UConn as the top 3-point shooting team in the conference. South Dakota State transfer Baylor Scheierman is Bluejays’ top 3-point threat, as a 6-foot-7 senior has impressive length and range to hit from just about anywhere. He’s shooting 38.8 percent from three this season, and is joined by Trey Alexander (44.8 percent on 58 attempts) as Creighton’s best deep threats.
Kalkbrenner has evolved mightily from his freshman season into an elite big man on both ends that holds his own in a conference that’s full of them. While his offensive repertoire is not as deep as Sanogo’s and lacks the range of Xavier’s Jack Nunge, Kalkbrenner is an efficient, mobile big who cleans up on the glass. He’s not as physically dominant as Clingan, but has the size at 7-foot-1 to give the the freshman a taste of his own medicine. With no Samson Johnson available, the duo of Clingan and Sanogo will be tasked with keeping Kalkbrenner off the glass and the foul line, where he shoots over 70 percent, as much as possible.
When Kalkbrenner is off the floor, Creighton has their own solid freshman big in Fredrick King, a Bahamas native who posted back-to-back double doubles against two top-60 KenPom teams when Kalkbrenner missed time in mid December,
Aside from Scheierman and Kalkbrenner, McDermott’s stellar sophomore trio of Arthur Kaluma, Ryan Nembhard and Alexander bring toughness and interior scoring to the Bluejays’ starting five. Kaluma is quick and shifty at 6-foot-7 — the exact type of big that has given Karaban trouble defensively so far this season. The likes of Kaluma, Scheierman, Kalkbrenner consistently dominate the glass on both ends and have the size to take over the battle of the boards if UConn doesn’t box out well enough.